Early Childhood School

Cars Help Students with Disabilities Gain Independence

May 31, 2017

Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines!

Twelve very lucky young Frisco ISD students with physical disabilities were special guests recently at the Career and Technical Education Center, where they were presented with their very own customized vehicles – some VW buses, Jeeps, a law enforcement vehicle and even a Corvette!

The ride-on cars were modified for use by children with limited mobility by high school engineering students who study at the CTE Center. They are now on loan for their new drivers to use at home and school until they outgrow them and pass them on to other students.

Though some of the young students do not communicate well, the excitement they experienced when they first made their cars move on their own was visible in their faces, through gasps of joy and their intrepid driving skills. One teacher found herself thrown onto the hood of a car by her student, something she confessed she had not dreamed of ever happening when the school year began. She dusted herself off and her student driver zoomed forward.

The effort began last spring when Frisco ISD Physical Therapist Jennifer Cox and Active Learning Classroom (ALC) teacher Lindsay Brittain were inspired by videos of the University of Delaware's GoBabyGo program, in which small motorized ride-on toy cars were modified for students with limited mobility.

After attending a workshop, obtaining a car for one very special student at the Frisco ISD Early Childhood School and learning how to modify the car, the two were rewarded by seeing the student's overwhelming joy at being able to move on his own for the first time in his life, as he was able to lead an end-of-year parade through the hallways of the school.

In addition to giving students an independent role in their mobility, use of the modified cars may allow students to qualify for motorized wheelchairs at a younger age. The ability to explore the world also means quicker and greater cognitive gains for students who have intellectual delays as well as physical disabilities.

“They can play and have fun. They’re learning cause and effect and how to steer and drive the cars, as well as experiencing increased social interaction,” Brittain said. “Research also shows that once you have a role in your own mobility, you see that you can control it, that you have that desire. When students aren’t in the car, they want to roll more, crawl more and walk more, because they know they can get from point A to point B.”

Cox and Brittain applied for a grant through the Frisco Education Foundation's Grants for Great Ideas program with the hopes of making more cars available to students. They were awarded $1,300 to purchase and modify three cars – one for the Early Childhood School and two for active learning classrooms at Corbell and Pink elementary schools.

Frisco Education Foundation Board members were so inspired by the project, they raised additional funding to purchase more cars for students, to date adding $5,000 from Frisco Sunrise Rotary Club to the original grant amount. To help customize the cars to meet each student's unique capabilities, FEF Board member Peter Burns enlisted engineering teachers and students from the CTE Center.

Teachers Ken Strong and Travis Volk not only put their students to work to engineer the specific modification requirements for each student, but also added features of their own, such as harnesses, seat belts, seat backs, safety rails and extra buttons to provide options for driving the cars. They used 3D printing to fashion the modifications.

Both Brittain and Cox were very appreciative of the funding and extra help the project received through FEF and Sunrise Rotary. They had hoped for three cars and ended up with a dozen.

“Children learn through play,” Brittain told the families, students and educators at the presentation event. “What could be more fun than driving little cars?”

The engineering students loved the project, which they completed separately from their regular curriculum. Volk explained that many of his students came in at 7:30 a.m. and worked on the cars until class started. Students were also allowed to work on the cars when they finished work early in class, he said.

Engineering student Colin Burden said he still remembers the day he got his little red Jeep when he was a toddler. One of his fondest memories of childhood is the birthday when his father unlocked the fastest speed on the ride-on toy so he could go as fast as possible.

Noah Keck, who enjoyed working on the wiring for a toy Jeep and dreams of going to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or another top engineering college, confesses he never had his own ride-on car. But that didn’t necessarily keep him from riding his older sister’s Barbie Jeep. His childhood thrill was figuring out how things worked.

“I was definitely a tinkerer,” he said.

For many children, being able to steer their own small ride-on vehicle is a rite of passage. For the special education students at the Early Childhood School or in some FISD elementary schools, this experience is rare due to lack of access or the fact that some families have to rely on insurance helping pay for a modified car. 

Engineering student Molly Lammas was delighted to meet the children who received the cars – particularly a little girl named Abbi who got one of the cars she modified.

“We didn’t know anything about them,” she said.

She had worked on modifications for a tiny VW bus, a sheriff’s patrol car and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Jeep. Her dream is to study aerospace engineering, but wiring and working on the little cars was an “amazing experience,” she said.

Frisco ISD Board members and educators were out in full force to see the little ones take their first rides. Jenn Schneider, a therapist with FISD’s Special Education Department, was as thrilled for the engineering students as she was for the little ones.

“These kids are finding their passion. They have not only started on the road to their careers, they have now met and helped a population of students they may not have been aware of,” she said. “They can say, ‘look what I did’ as they fill out college applications.”

Brittain, Cox and all the FISD educators are highly aware of the gift these cars are to students. Over and over again, educators stressed how important it is for children to be able to be independent and move in their environment. They will be able to interact with peers and will be in charge of themselves as they play – something that can be a challenge for a student with mobility issues.

The parents were perhaps as thrilled as their children. The parents of a young man named Ryder warned his older brothers that they could help Ryder with his driving, but they could not get in the car – they were too big.

“I don’t think we can afford to replace it,” said mom Meredith Engelmeyer. “It is just for Ryder.”

Aqeel Ahmed is an engineer and the father of one of the students who received a new shiny black Jeep.

“I had built a yellow Ford F-150 for him, but he outgrew it,” he said. “I put him in a helmet, but I didn’t put in all the safety systems these students did. This one fits perfectly for him.”

The brainchild of Brittain and Cox will continue to help students with special needs. The Frisco Education Foundation’s Grants for Great Ideas program will continue to fund innovative projects proposed by FISD educators each year. Director Allison Miller says the GoBabyGo project is exactly the kind of great idea that the Foundation loves to help with – it educates and improves the lives of FISD students on multiple levels.

Zoom, zoom!

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See news and video coverage from The Dallas Morning News.